Do you have a “sixth sense” for great content ideas?
In the smash hit movie The Sixth Sense, eight-year-old Cole Sear has a problem. He sees something no one else sees: dead people. Though the boy is terrified by these visions, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist (played by Bruce Willis), helps him to see his ability as a gift. Cole learns that he can help these troubled spirits to solve their unresolved conflicts so they can depart in peace.
I’m not going to help you see dead people (would you really want to?), but I can help you get what I call “content eyes.” With content eyes you’ll learn to see great ideas for your content marketing almost everywhere you look.
(If you’d rather get this content in a 10-minute video, scroll to the bottom.)
Hello, My Name Is Mark, and I’m Topically Challenged
Really, we all are. Whether its the next blog post, a slide deck for a presentation, a video you want to record, or even just that next social media post, the task of constantly coming up with new and fresh topics to talk about is daunting.
Finding fresh and unique content topics is even more important now as many believe we are in a time of increasing content glut. The only hope for creating meaningful content that gets peoples’ attention and gets reshared is in going beyond the same old same-old for content topics.
Compound that with the fact that just producing “SEO copy” is no longer good enough for SEO. Search engines are becoming smarter all the time. They are getting better at sniffing out content that really matters, that has depth and expresses a unique point of view.
Finally, beyond just getting the job done or ranking in search engines, you need content that will help build trust and authority for you and your brand. Content like that can have truly lasting value in acquiring leads and customers, as well as reinforcing the trust that build long-term customers for your business.
Developing Content Eyes
I’m convinced that in order to fulfill all those mandates you have to train yourself to develop what I call “content eyes.” What do I mean by content eyes? It’s simply the acquired sensitivity to recognizing the content idea opportunities all around you as you live your life and do your business.
I can assure you I am never out of content ideas. In fact, I have more than I can use! Therefore, writers block (at least in the sense of “what shall I write about?”) is foreign to me. And it’s all because I trained myself to have content eyes, eyes that see content everywhere.
Professional photographers have content eyes. They train themselves to see photographs everywhere. Wherever they are–taking a walk, touring a building, enjoying an event–they are constantly looking for that photographic moment. They grow a “sixth sense” for noticing that right combination of light, color, action, elements, whatever, that says, “great photo here!” They see that old man in the market who has a face that tells a story of long ages. They see the way that shadow falls across the street at that moment, that right time of day. They think, “that’s a photograph!”
According to legend, the artist Michelangelo claimed he could already see the finished sculpture within a plain block of marble. For him, the figure was already there, trapped inside, awaiting his chisel to set it free. You get a real sense of that in his “Prisoners,” a set of unfinished statues for the tomb of Pope Julius II (see an example at right).
The point is, the content is already there. The ideas are swirling all around you. You just have to learn to have content eyes to see them.
So let’s learn how to develop those content eyes.
“Question Everything.” It was one of the most popular bumper stickers of the 1960s. While the aphorism was meant to encourage a healthy skepticism toward authority, it’s also a good philosophy for developing new content ideas from existing content.
Cultivate a questioning mind, a mind that asks questions as you read or view a piece of content. For one thing, questioning what you read is a great strategy for increasing comprehension. But it also can help you discover the “content inside the content,” or even “the content that this content missed.”
What I mean is that no piece of content is entirely comprehensive. No matter how good the author, no matter how much of an expert she is, she inevitably left something unexplained or not fully covered. Of course, it’s possible that author also got something wrong, or failed to explain or justify a conclusion sufficiently.
Those gaps are seeds for content that you could produce!
Formulating questions while you read or view content is the key to uncovering new content ideas out of existing content. Develop the habit of talking back to content. I don’t mean you have to argue out loud (I don’t want your loved ones calling the men in white coats!). But work on fostering a healthy skepticism. No matter how impressive the content piece is, no matter how respected the authority, refuse to take it at face value.
Ask questions like:
- Why is that the case?
- What’s the proof behind that statement?
- How do those thoughts connect? Do they successfully?
- What’s missing here? What was left unsaid?
- What is flat-out wrong (in my opinion)?
Instead of just launching into a debate in the comments, think about how you could develop any of those questions into a new piece of content of your own. Perhaps your piece will just help raise the unasked questions, to get a discussion going. Or your observation of a gap in the evidence or logic of the original work’s argument might spur you to do your own thinking or research, leading to your own content.
See how valuable asking questions can be?
Let me give you an example. Recently I was asked to speak at the State of Search conference in Dallas. My topic was simply “social media” and was left pretty wide open. I didn’t want to give the usual social media talk with the now too-familiar tips everyone’s heard a thousand times. I was looking for inspiration, a spark, a portal to exploring my topic in some new way.
And it came, in the form of someone else’s content I stumbled across.
I came upon a blog post by Augie Ray in which he proclaimed that most marketers should just stop doing social media marketing. His thesis was that social media marketing only works under very limited circumstances. While he made some good points, my inner critic kicked in, and instead of just taking his conclusions at face value, I asked questions. I questioned whether his conclusions were warranted by his evidence. I asked myself whether I thought he had examined all possibilities. For me, the answer to both questions was, “No,” and I had my content idea.
The result is seen in my slide deck “Social Media Marketing Is a Waste of Time…Unless….” Understand that while I began with a critique of Mr. Ray’s post, I didn’t stop there. To make this truly useful content, I expanded out into my own ideas about what makes social media marketing really effective.
Conclusion: Asking questions of other people’s content can lead to your own content ideas.
Bonus tip: Sometimes the questions don’t have to be your own. Look for questions being raised by others around a piece of content, perhaps in the comments or in social media discussions.
Do the Mashup!
Another technique I use for discovering new content ideas from existing content is what I call the mashup.
In music a mashup is a song created by mixing together and syncing elements of two or more songs. The trick is to bring together elements that may be very different, even from entirely different genres, but that actually work together. When done well, mashups create whole new ways to hear the original songs from which they are built.
For example, listen to what happens when Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” meets the Beatles’ “Come Together.” You’ll never hear either song the same again!
You can do content mashups as well. If you’ve got your content eyes wide open, you’ll begin to see ways that two or more different pieces of content can be mashed into a whole new idea. What you’re looking for here is content where the whole (your new content) is bigger than the sum of its parts (the main ideas of the original content pieces).
There are at least four different kinds of content mashups you can create:
1. The Overlap. Sometimes you may see two (or more) pieces of content that overlap in some way. That is, though they may be about different main ideas, there is some element in each that relates.
What you want to do is write about that overlap and why it’s important. Perhaps the overlap provides new insights into aspects of both of the original pieces. Or some entirely new concept might arise in the Venn diagram common space. Example: Take data from a social media engagement study and see how it correlates with different business verticals. Wherever you find correlation, that’s the overlap you write about.
2. The Contrast. Keep an eye out for two or more pieces of content that give an entirely different perspective on each other. In this case there is little or no overlap. The magic is in the contrast.
Explain why these two ideas are in contrast. What is revealed by the different perspective of each view? Example: Two auto companies take very different approaches to electric automobiles. You write about the pros and cons of each proposal.
3. The Contradiction. This can be the most interesting mashup, especially if you don’t mind stirting up a little bit of controversy. Here you’re looking for two or more ideas that are directly opposed to each other.
Once you’ve identified two or more contradicting ideas, write about why they contradict and what you think that means. Example: Find two opposing predictions about the future of your industry, and write about which you think is correct (or why) or how they might be seeing the same thing but from different angles.
4. The Bridge. Sometimes you’ll find a connection between two or more content pieces that no one else has noticed.
Your job as a content creator is to make the bridge clear, and to explain how the bridge between the two ideas affects each of the original ideas. Example: You’ve found an article about how office designers maximize office space and another about how to calculate the amount of office space a company will need. You write about how the former can help a business make a more intelligent decision about the latter.
Unmuddy the Waters
This final technique is one I use a lot, perhaps because I spend a good part of my adult life as a teacher. I have an obsession with clearing things up, with helping people understand that which isn’t yet clear.
The idea here is to keep your content eyes open for content that merely presents some facts or bald ideas, but doesn’t go any further. If that content fails to explain the facts–their significance, meaning or usefulness–or doesn’t do so adequately, it’s your opportunity to step in and build the explanation.
An example: I had a chat with Jay Baer recently, of Convince & Convert. Something he said set off a gong in my mind. I suddenly understood why some of my most-read content had clicked.
Jay has this thing that he calls “and therefore” content. When he sees content where someone says, “This happened out there,” just kind of reporting the news, he says, “Let’s write about or do a video or an audio or whatever that goes the next step to ‘and therefore, what this means to you,’ or ‘therefore the next steps you need to take are,” or ‘therefore this might happen in the future’.” See the power of that?
If you can give the “…and therefore” enough times, you’ll be well on your way to building authority and trust with your audience.
Focus Those Content Eyes
So I want you to work hard at developing content eyes. Learn to see content everywhere. Train yourself. Begin to ask those questions. Begin to look for the overlaps, contrasts, contradictions and connections in everything you read or watch. Listen, look, and find out what you can put together in a way that nobody else has before, and you’ll never run out of content ideas.
Bonus: I originally presented this content as a Whiteboard Friday video for the Moz Blog. <<– Click the link to view the video.